Hemp is one of nature’s most versatile crops. From textiles to food, building materials to paper and plastic, it’s the Swiss Army knife of plants. Now that hemp is legal both in Canada and the United States, consumers and businesses can finally explore the true potential of the long-overlooked weed.
Further, the cannabis industry is going through some growing pains. It’s struggling to find a sustainable way to meet the demands of commercialization. Packaging, landfill waste, and high water and electricity use all lend to the industry’s less than green reputation. Fortunately, cannabis’ salvation may come in the form of new and innovative uses for the hemp plant.
To learn more about some of the sustainable initiatives occuring in the hemp space, we spoke with Zaffia LaPlante, president and founder of Hempergy. The indigenous-owned and operated company is working to highlight hemp’s durability and sustainability, and particularly its usefulness within indigenous communities.
“Hempergy is focused on improving the supply chain of waste management in the cannabis and hemp industries. Our goal is to use hemp as a sustainable feedstock for construction, cosmetic, and textile purposes. The aim is not necessarily to create these amazing products, but it’s also to engage collaboratively and cooperatively with indigenous groups around North America, so that they’re not just the end user of our product, but included throughout the entire supply chain,” explained LaPlante.
LaPlante is passionate about her project, not just because of her enthusiasm for hemp, but also because of the intensity of the housing crisis on First Nations reserves. Due to Canada’s 1876 Indian Act, indigenous people can’t own land on their reservations. As such, those living on reservations have no assets to leverage for a mortgage. In other words, they have to provide 100 percent of building costs up front, often in extremely remote locations. The result is aging homes laden with mold and lacking in basic necessities, like heating or electricity.
Hemp building materials could address some of these concerns. LaPlante elaborates, “Hempcrete is mold proof, nontoxic, fire-resistant, biodegradable, and, unlike fiberglass installation, it doesn’t use chemicals or toxins.” LaPlante hopes to help make the material more accessible to these communities and get them involved in every stage of development.
“A lot of the indigenous communities that I’m working with approached me because they are growing cannabis right now and they’re thinking about maximizing their economic opportunities. They understand that Hempergy has this different ethos of operating… It’s much more attractive than mainstream producers who may be doing an amazing job growing, but who don’t understand the corporate social responsibility and added social value of what we do,” she explains.
Some members of First Nations communities feel the housing crisis is another iteration of their long-endured oppression. The provincial parliament member for Kiiwetinoong in northern Ontario, Sol Mamakwa, spoke with The Guardian on the subject: “This system is not broken, it’s working exactly the way it’s supposed to. It’s a colonial system designed to take away our people’s right to natural resources and lands so we can’t take care of ourselves.”
LaPlante has seen firsthand how a lack of resources can impact communities. “I am an indigenous woman of Canada, and I do have an understanding of the reality that indigenous people are faced with here in Canada, but also across North America, and even in Australia. I came across similar parallels of the marginalization of colonialism and how indigenous communities and indigenous people are put in this position because of the western system we live in.”
She continues, “[Hemp] could be a tool to come up with our own solutions… That’s why myself and Hempergy are acting as a tool to support whatever issue the community may be facing. It’s important to stop being limited to just growing the plant for medicinal purposes and to start using it for building materials.”
In Canada’s harsh climate, developing materials that are both durable and water-resistant is vital to the long-term sustainability of local communities. Further, the isolated nature of many indigenous reservations makes transporting materials an arduous and expensive task. Demolition costs and waste-removal fees for removing existing dilapidated structures can also be prohibitively expensive.
This isn’t a facet that was lost on LaPlante. “It’s much easier to recycle compared to other natural building materials, like straw bale homes. Hemp and hemp-based materials also absorb a higher amount of humidity and water. So instead of simply holding on to that moisture and leaking it out later, creating mold and mildew, hemp actually absorbs that humidity and stores it within the material and then releases it at a later time to retain a healthy living temperature.”
LaPlante’s ambitions don’t end with Hempergy. She feels the whole hemp community needs to pool their collective knowledge to help advance the industry. “Understand that if you want to make an impact and really change the world and make it a better place for current and future generations, we have to work together. We can’t just work in silence. We have to collaborate, cooperate, and share that knowledge.” She concludes, “I really do feel that hemp is the future and it’s what we need to be focusing our time and energy on, so we can scale it not just across America, but across the world.”